If you are looking for a horror novel that will give you nightmares, I have just the book for you. Dreams are never safe in this debut novel by C.J. Malarsky. Ever since Willow trespassed in Ashwood Asylum, she seems to have taken a piece of it home with her that won’t get out of her head. Malarsky’s smooth prose, attention to detail, and unique premise will draw you in until you are shivering in your sheets but can’t stop turning the pages. Be sure to check out my interview with the author at the bottom of my review!
Willow’s cousin Devin loves urban exploring and ropes her into helping him with a photo shoot in the abandoned Ashwood Asylum. But when his friend plays a frightening prank on her in the on-site morgue, Willow finds herself in a different Ashwood, one where her cousin and his friends have hollow, black eyes, and strange creatures called the mora seem determined to trap her there forever. Even after she returns to reality, Willow finds herself shunted back to the shadow Ashwood every time she falls asleep, and sometimes even when she is awake. As the transitions happen more frequently, it becomes difficult to know what is real and what is not. How can Willow ever escape if she cannot tell when she is free?
This novel was truly chilling, leaving you with that vulnerable feeling that only great horror books or movies will. CJ Malarsky’s writing style is so polished I could hardly believe this was her first novel. Willow is a relatable protagonist: an ordinary girl (okay, she’s seen as a weirdo at school but that’s ordinary to some of us), who loves her family, video games, and flouncy dresses. She’s no brave warrior but she becomes one out of necessity, out of that instinct for survival that we all possess. The scariest thing in this book is not the creepy nursery rhymes of the mora or the menacing medical instruments in the asylum, but rather the thought of not being able to separate reality from nightmares. Insanity has always been one of humanity’s greatest fears, and CJ toys with it expertly as Willow rides a roller coaster of hope and despair of ever leaving Ashwood.
I had the opportunity to exchange some emails with CJ Malarsky (who seems to be lovely person, even if she delights in scaring us senseless), including a short interview, which I have included below.
DG: Your protagonist Willow is involved with several geek subcultures from video gamers to Lolita fashion aficionados. Would you call yourself a geek? What passions do you share with Willow?
CJ: Oh, yes! I am absolutely a geek and have been since birth. Willow and I share a lot of common interests–video games, lolita fashion, and table-top RPGs being the main ones. I just felt that YA literature needed more geek girls represented, especially when their geeky hobbies aren’t the primary focus of the story. I think in order to normalize our hobbies in mainstream culture (especially lolita fashion, which isn’t as widely understood or taken seriously) we have to frame these interests as just being a part of the character rather than the focus of the plot.
[Sidenote: CJ did a really good job of executing this in the book! There are little mentions here and there of the fanciful clothing Willow normally wears to school when she is not being haunted by nightmares, or of her triumphant memory of beating her cousin in a game of Soul Calibur without button mashing. The references were so casual, but present enough to make any geek reading go, THAT! EXACTLY THAT. I KNOW WHAT SHE IS TALKING ABOUT–THAT IS MY LIFE!]
DG: Would you consider Willow a feminist character?
CJ: Yeah, I think so. I hope she is seen as such, at least. It was certainly my intention to have her be a strong female main character. There are a lot of YA heroines out there who are put in some very dangerous relationship situations, and the way many of them react to it is alarming to me. I’ve seen too many stories that send some potentially damaging messages to young people. To combat that I really wanted to make Willow be someone who calls that behavior out and says “No! You’re full of crap and this isn’t right!” I also wanted to showcase that you can be traditionally feminine and still be strong. Those aren’t mutually exclusive concepts.
DG: Why did you choose to write in the horror genre? What can we learn about fear from works like Ashwood?
CJ: I never make much of a conscious choice with my writing. The story chooses me. Elizabeth Gilbert (of Eat, Pray, Love fame) did a fantastic TED talk about the subject where she discusses the idea of writers merely being a vessel for some external muse, and I can’t agree more with her. Writing really does feel like you are often being bent to the will of outside forces. I rarely feel I have control over the ideas that pop into my head. Sometimes inspiration just hits you and you have this story idea whispering in your head. Your only choices are to write it out, block it out, or go mad. I chose to listen and get it down on paper. For the most part my muse sends me stories that usually fall in the fantasy or horror genre, but I don’t restrict myself to any specific genres–I’ll just write whatever story pops into my head.
In terms of works like Ashwood, and what we can learn about fear from them… well, one of the main things about fear is that I don’t think you can ever destroy it. Fear is a primal part of the human experience and we’re never going to be able to escape that. The only thing you can do is try to handle it as best as you can. It’s okay to be afraid, but it’s important not to let it control you.
DG: I’m a bit of a World Mythology geek but I don’t know much about the mora. What drew you to Slavic mythology? What aspects of the mora are from myth, and what are your own twists?
CJ: Yay for fellow mythology geeks! As for the mora, well I am half-Ukrainian and I’ve always been interested in learning about my roots. Slavic culture and mythology has always appealed to me for that reason. The mora (also called the mara) are a very obscure part of folklore and they are essentially a Slavic version of the more popularly-known incubus. There’s not a lot of information on them beyond that they, like incubi, cause nightmares and were believed to have been blamed for many parasomnias. As such, I had a lot of freedom to expand on them and make them my own. So things like their behavior, appearance, and motivation are my own creation.
DG: Any plans for a sequel? Or other unrelated stories in the works?
CJ: There are two potential sequels being discussed right now, so we shall see there. For unrelated works, I have a pile of about four manuscripts to be edited and another seven ideas waiting to be written. The work of a writer is never done–the stories just keep coming. Hopefully one of them will make its way into publication soon, though.
We look forward to reading more from CJ in the future. Have you read Ashwood yet? Do you plan to? Leave us a message in the comments.